Faded photographs mixed in with Kohl’s receipts from 2006, coupons entangled in an endless knot of wires from God only knows what appliances, empty denture cups, incense cones, wedding favors older than I am and dust everywhere; it is a journey through the house that time forgot, where the decade I am in is determined by the direction I turn my head. I am accustomed to unusual experiences and strange twists in my life, but never have I felt more like Alice in Wonderland than I have these last few weeks.
When I was caring for my client, the condition of her house and environment in which she was living was mentioned in passing. I knew about the hoarding and the state of mind of her son. It was how she ended up in NC and in my care. I knew. But I DIDN’T know. As a caregiver, I have always been of the belief that not having memories of our residents from the time “before” makes us more effective. We are able to love them where they are now, without all the scars and emotional strain that can come from a lifetime of memories. It makes it easier to meet them where they are at. Yet here I am, walking in the footsteps of her life as I inventory, catalog and pack a world of memories that are not my own.
Fifty years of living in the same house accumulates quite a lot of stuff…and dust. There she is in her cap and gown, in her wedding dress, as a child. There she is with her own children and grandchild. Love letters from WWII, mink stoles. worn and faded from days gone by, yellowed photographs and old records. I could almost hear Frank Sinatra playing in the background as I sift through the remnants of her entire life, her imprint on this Earth.
In this strange environment in an unfamiliar town doing a different kind of job, I’m walking through this house with a ghost; not the angry spectres we see in movies, but the wisps of the spirit that tie the delightful octogenarian who was in my care to the young vivacious woman in these photographs. I don’t know how many caregivers are given this opportunity. God knows it’s a new one for me. At first, I was in shock and blindly accepted it, then I was overwhelmed and wanted to run from it. Now, I am seeing beneath the wreckage to the treasure underneath.
My client was beautiful. She lived a full life and in sorting through hers, I am learning about my own. My life has been on pause as I see this journey through and as I inventory the house, I find that I am also inventorying myself. Where do I want to go? What have I learned from where I’ve been? What matters most to me? It has been a time of reflection mixed with threads of uncertainty. In getting to know the woman my client was through this experience, I am better getting to know the woman I want to be. In this detour from my life, I am forced to focus on finding a new direction. And in the face of this seemingly unending phase of constant transitions, I have no choice but to trust putting one foot in front of the other.
This whole surreal situation has also reminded me that we are so much bigger than the roles we fill. We are more than the sum total of what others see. She was my client. But now I see her as so much more than just a person for whom I cared. I see who she was when she started to who she was when she came into my life. It’s like reading a book backwards. I don’t know where this path will lead. I don’t know what I will do with the knowledge that I gain. I only know that this trip through the looking glass is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. That in and of itself makes it worthwhile.